The gloriously pointless world of football banter

Cantona's kung-fu kick was not a political statement, it was comedy gold.

Duleep Allirajah

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Why were some Palace fans hurling abuse – not to mention coins and cigarette lighters – at Wayne Rooney on Saturday? It baffled me. Was it somehow related to Eric Cantona? It seems unlikely as Rooney was only nine years old when Cantona kung-fu kicked Matthew Simmons. Was it something to do with his new £300,000-a-week wage deal? Or simply that he plays for Manchester United, the all-purpose punchbag for the evils of modern football over the last two decades. Look, I love a bit of needle as much as the next man, but some of the finger-pointing and phoney offence-taking we’ve seen over Cantona and Rooney has been pathetic.

The build-up to United’s visit to Selhurst Park was dominated by the spectre of Eric Cantona. That’s right, a footballer who attacked a Palace fan 19 years ago and who retired in 1997. Manchester United fans were reportedly planning to wear Eric Cantona masks at the game to wind up the Palace fans. Frankly, I can’t see why anyone would get upset by a bunch of Mancs wearing silly masks. When Cantona attacked Matthew Simmons I wasn’t one of those frothing with outrage. Whisper it, but I thought the flying kick was comedy gold. Did he really just do that? Très incroyable, as they say in France. To be fair, I’ve always argued that Matthew Simmons was perfectly entitled to give Cantona a mouthful of abuse. That’s what fans are meant to do, aren’t they? Unsettle, insult and goad the opposition. The twelfth man and all that.

The problem is that that moment of comic-book violence has been retrospectively imbued with spurious moral significance – on both sides. To the Frenchman’s acolytes, Cantona was a martyr whose only crime was exacting revenge against a foul-mouthed hooligan. ‘One applauds Eric Cantona’s foray into the Crystal Palace crowd as an example of postmodernism’, said novelist Julian Barnes. As Simmons’ ‘previous’ was unearthed – a youthful flirtation with far-right politics and an assault on an Asian petrol-station attendant – Cantona’s loss of self-control was recast as an heroic act of anti-racism. ‘The more we discovered about Mr Simmons, the more Cantona’s assault looked like the instinctive expression of flawless moral judgement’, wrote Richard Williams in the Independent on Sunday. One might describe this as an act of ‘unwitting anti-racism’, for Cantona couldn’t possibly have known about Simmons’ past. All he heard was the angry fan allegedly screaming ‘Fuck off back to France you French motherfucker’ (or ‘Off, off, off. Go on Cantona, that’s an early bath for you’ if you believe Simmons’ account).

Why, you might be wondering, are Cantona masks so inflammatory to Palace supporters? The answer lies in the tragic death of 35-year-old Palace fan Paul Nixon three months after the kung-fu incident. Nixon was crushed by the wheels of a coach after fighting broke out between Palace and United fans ahead of an FA Cup semi-final. Palace fans are still aggrieved that nobody was prosecuted for their part in Nixon’s death and have interpreted Cantona masks as somehow glorifying Nixon’s death. It all seems pretty tenuous to me. I fail to see how a latex Cantona mask constitutes a celebration of Nixon’s death. The two incidents were completely unrelated. If United fans had caused Nixon’s death, as is alleged, they alone are culpable, not Eric Cantona. This seems like a bad case of phoney offence-taking to me.

As for the coin-chucking and abuse of Rooney, I really don’t get it either. What has Wayne Rooney ever done to upset Palace fans? By all means give Ashley Young stick for his diving. But why target Rooney? Part of this, I suspect, is an expression of that Anyone But United (ABU) phenomenon. Over the last two decades a string of United players have become targets for opposition boo-boys: Paul Ince, David Beckham and Roy Keane were all vilified simply because they wore the United jersey. The abuse they received was actually a backhanded compliment. You must be doing something right if the opposition fans hate you so much. It speaks volumes that Eric Djemba-Djemba and Massimo Taibi were never vilified like that (except by their own supporters). I can understand why United attracted so much green-eyed bile when they lorded over English football. But isn’t it all a bit passé now? The United empire is rapidly crumbling, so you’d have thought that ABU bitterness would be redirected to Manchester City or Chelsea. Clearly, it seems that old resentful habits die hard.

Some Rooney-baiters have attempted to ennoble their abuse as a protest against the commercialisation of football. ‘I think that he has come to represent everything that is venal and craven in modern English football. I think he deserves to be barracked by opposing fans for that very reason’, wrote one Palace fan on a message board. Others had less high falutin’ motives: ‘Can’t condone the coin chucking at all but I see nothing wrong with calling him a fat greedy bastard, granny shagger or a potato-headed c*nt’, opined another fan.

To be honest, I prefer the ‘it was just mindless banter’ defence. It doesn’t attempt to dress up playground taunts in pseudo-political garb. The beauty of football’s bust-ups and banter is precisely its utter pointlessness. We really shouldn’t take it so seriously. We shouldn’t look for moral or political significance. We shouldn’t get our knickers in a twist about kung-fu kicks, Cantona masks or Rooney’s wages. Instead, we should just enjoy football for what it is: a passionate, gloriously vulgar, but ultimately meaningless, pantomime.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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